Shelah: On mission creep, Moses and Land of Canaan

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Numbers 13:1-15:41

Joshua 2:1-24

Moses, in this week's reading, obeying the command of God, appoints a high-level team to investigate the land of Canaan. The majority of the team returns with a pessimistic report which demoralizes the people, angers Moses and dooms the Jews to a generation of wandering in the desert. The mission, begun with great promise at divine command, ends in complete failure.

What went wrong? Let us do a postmortem analysis of this ill-fated mission.

In the first place, why did anyone need to send spies? The One who led the Jews through the desert with a pillar of light by night and a pillar of smoke by day certainly had no need of spies, and yet God commanded Moses to send the spies.

The composition of the team of spies seems odd: Twelve princes, one from each tribe. Why recruit spies from the leading families? And why so many? Forty years after this incident, when Joshua again sends spies into the land, he sends anonymous men, and only two (Joshua 2:1, the beginning of this week's haftorah). That seems like a more reasonable number.

Moses launches the mission by telling the spies what to look for. He wants information about the quality of the land. Did they not already have divine promises about the quality of the land?

Moses also wants information that might have military significance, such as "whether the people dwell in fortifications" (Numbers 13:14) and whether they appear "strong or weak, few or many" (13:18). How does this question match the promise that the Jews will inherit people stronger and more numerous then they (Deut. 7:1)? Moses does not ask for the most basic questions about military strategy, such as the location of armies, or vulnerable points in the defenses. Why not?

When he tells the story again (beginning at Deut. 1:22), Moses recounts that the people asked him to send spies, and takes responsibility for agreeing with the plan. Here, it looks like a divine plan. Whose idea was this, anyway?

What did the spies do wrong? Moses our teacher does not appreciate their pessimistic report about the land of Canaan, but he asked for their opinion. What were they supposed to do, lie?

Two of the classical commentators, Rabbi Yitzhak Abarbanel (1437-1508) and Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim (1809-1879) typically pose a series of questions at the beginning of their analysis of biblical stories. I collected and paraphrased these questions from their commentaries. Malbim brilliantly answers all of the questions with one answer.

Hebrew has two words for spying. One, latour, means to seek good. The modern Hebrew word for tourist, tayyar, comes from this root, appropriately enough. Tourists look for good things to enjoy wherever they go. The other, leragel, means to look for weaknesses.

God commands Moses to appoint a team of political leaders to look for good — latour — to examine the resources of this land. Their assignment: To discover whether the land has enough good features to make it a desirable homeland. When they find that the land has good features — Moses has no doubt about that — they can then generate enthusiasm for the conquest of the land. He sends leaders of each of the tribes to represent the interests of each constituency.

But the adventure suffers from mission creep. The princes go beyond their assignment. They begin to look for signs of military weakness — leragel — so that they can advise Moses how to lead the invasion; but they do not find any weakness. The inhabitants seem invulnerable. So the princes return, filled with despair, and try to discourage the people. When it becomes necessary, the princes lie about the value of the land, just to forestall this foolhardy invasion.

Later, when Joshua prepares for the actual invasion, he sends two men, who report back to him alone. Their mission: leragel — To advise him how to attack Jericho.